After experiencing a season paused for four months because of a pandemic, after traveling to Orlando for the NBA's restart, after quarantining inside the bubble for two days, the San Antonio Spurs did not use their first moments reunited to practice.
Instead, the team talked for more than an hour, discussing their personal and shared reflections on systemic racism, the pandemic and how one exposed the deep inequities of the other.
"As we all are well aware, it's a seminal moment in the sense that we have an opportunity to do something transformative...," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said during a Zoom conference with reporters. "In this particular situation, talking about racism, it's been talked about many, many times over centuries, and this is where we are. The league, the players, the coaches, the staff, everybody is committed to keeping it up front in everybody's conscience … because that's what it takes. It was the same way with voting rights, which, of course, are now in danger, and the LGBT movement. No matter what progress has been made, it's always been made because of pressure. It didn't happen because people just said, 'Yeah, we're going to do this.' People, governments, politicians were forced into doing things."
Popovich is searching to hold himself and others accountable, to make people of privilege uncomfortable following the killing of George Floyd and so many others and the inequities laid bare by the pandemic. In that meeting with his team at Disney World, he discussed Nikole Hannah-Jones' recent article, "What Is Owed," from the New York Times Magazine, in which she documented how today's wealth inequity is deeply rooted in centuries of racial oppression and violence.
Though Popovich has been outspoken on social and political causes for years, his voice has gained greater importance during a time the league and the country have been trying to figure out how to respond to an international health crisis and a reckoning with America's history of social injustice against Black Americans.
In recent weeks, Popovich has conceded that he was not educated as deeply as he hoped to be on the nation's history of racist terrorism but that he spent time thinking about his blind spots during the NBA's hiatus.
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"As far as basketball is concerned, I did nothing," Popovich said of his time spent during the layoff. "I didn't watch one film, look at one play, look at one stat. It's basketball ... you pick that up very quickly, like riding a bicycle. ...
"My time was more spent with family. Like a lot of you probably, reading, thinking about where we are, looking at our country, figuring out where we might go as a country. All the thoughts that became even more pronounced because of the virus and because of the situations where we had a lot of time to think or to be alone or to change course in our lives. That's where my time was spent. We talked to the players. We did our Zooms and tried to stay in touch that way, but as far as basketball is concerned, it was quite unimportant."
Popovich has long tried to use his platform to make clear the world is bigger than basketball.
A few years ago, he joined other white coaches like Stan Van Gundy and Steve Kerr in denouncing President Donald Trump. "I'm a rich white guy, and I'm sick to my stomach thinking about it," he said after Trump's election victory. "I can't imagine being a Muslim right now or a woman or an African American, Hispanic, a handicapped person. How disenfranchised they might feel. For anyone in those groups that voted for him, it's just beyond my comprehension how they ignore all that."
His legacy well-established, Popovich has the job security, and respect, to express himself like few coaches in any sport. And it's a space he empowers his players to share.
"One thing I experienced ever since I came to the Spurs was having those conscious conversations about what's going on in the real world," Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan said. "Pop always, throughout the season, at practices he always breaks down something or show us something or have us read something, watch something, what's going on in the world, keeping it on our minds. For us to have that conversation ... after everything that's transpired, kind of was uplifting, because everybody's emotions is all over the place … Everybody's got different experiences, so to be able to share that in front of all the players and coaching staff, and have that dialogue to continue, it's big for us to continue this thing as we're here in this bubble."
Patty Mills is a nine-year veteran of the Popovich experience. Recently, he disclosed that he is donating the full amount of his salary over San Antonio's eight remaining regular-season games, more than $1 million, to social justice causes.
"I think part of the reason why I've been here for so long is all the stuff I've been able to learn from him that doesn't necessarily relate to basketball," Mills said in a Zoom call with reporters. "It relates to everyday stuff, and that has helped me tremendously in my growth, in my development, as my upbringing, I guess, as an adult. So as it relates to this stuff, it's genuine. It's passionate. It's not stuff that is new to me, is new to him or new to this organization."
What is new is a roster that has only three players from the Tim Duncan era (Mills, LaMarcus Aldridge and Marco Belinelli). At 27-36 entering the NBA restart, San Antonio faces difficult odds in securing a 23rd consecutive playoff berth, so Popovich is prioritizing player development during these last few games. Without Aldridge (shoulder) and Trey Lyles (appendicitis), the Spurs will rely on DeRozan and the progression of a young core that includes players such as Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker IV.
At 71, Popovich debated even coaching in Orlando. He opted in, saying that he felt safer inside the NBA's cocoon rather than among the rising COVID-19 cases in Texas. He is also scheduled to coach the national team in the Olympics, moved to next summer.
How long he will return to the Spurs bench after that is anyone's guess. His imprint on the game's traditional history is not something he considers, in the grander scheme of things, all that important.
"When the league started out, obviously, there were huge problems, and people didn't even know if the league would be able to sustain itself and move on," Popovich said. "David Stern was obviously huge in that regard in making sure that a classy product that everybody could be proud of made its way into the fabric of our society. And from the beginning to today, I think everyone realizes what we have here, what has been produced, how important this is. And just like any other people, any other individual over time, people become more aware, become more outspoken, become more satisfied and feel more responsible about making statements to make things better for other people, and I think at this point, our league, our players, our coaches, are totally committed to that. There's no going back. This is a move forward, get-it-done sort of situation."
Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the bestselling author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire—available right here, right now. Follow him on Twitter, @jpdabrams.
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